By Stan Purdum
My father died in 2013 while I was on a six-day bicycle ride with Adventure Cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I got the call from my brother Scott the evening of the third day, after a challenging ride that included several long climbs and ended with a glorious and breathtaking 14-mile downhill plunge. The news wasn’t really a surprise, because Dad had not been in good shape when I’d left his bedside in the nursing home a day before the trip started.
In one sense, the news changed nothing about the bicycle trip. Dad had pre-arranged to be cremated, and there would be no funeral. We planned to have a memorial service, but that wouldn’t be until a few weeks later, at a time when the most members of our geographically scattered family could gather. So there was no reason for me to pull out of the bike trip.
But in another sense, Dad’s death changed much about the trip for me. This was a ride run by a tour company, with participants coming from several parts of the country. Everyone was friendly, but except for a riding buddy who’d come on this trip with me, the riders and staff were new acquaintances. I didn’t want to create an awkward situation where they felt burdened to comfort a stranger, so except for telling my friend, who already knew my father wasn’t well, and phoning my wife, I kept my grief private. This seemed right anyway because Dad had always been a private and quiet person.
Although his death saddened me, I couldn’t call it a tragedy. Dad was 94, and he’d been in quite good health all his life. My mother died a year earlier, but Dad had continued living independently and even driving his car — and driving well — until the last month of his life. Even then, as his body began to fail, and he had to be hospitalized, his mind remained clear. My brothers and I were especially grateful for that, because he continued to operate out of the quiet logic that had always marked his decisions. So in the hospital, once he realized that he could no longer care for himself, he said, “I don’t have any good options, but of what I’ve got, a nursing home seems like the best one.” So he cooperated with the move there. And then he told us, his sons, “Sell my car, take whatever you want of my stuff, and close my apartment. And don’t forget to cancel my car insurance and get a refund; I’ve paid ahead for six months.”
Tired from the day’s ride, I slept well enough that night, so it was the next day before I really began to process my loss. The route that day featured more long climbs, including one almost as soon as we started, and we were soon stretched out along the road. I found myself pedaling alone for much of the time, and frankly, I was glad for the solitude, especially as I needed to do some weeping.
Since I was pedaling, I soon found myself recalling how I’d had to lobby Dad to get my first bike, and how that incident illustrated his logic. I was 12, wanted a bicycle, and I had my own money saved up from my paper route to get one. But Dad had it in his mind that bicycle riding wasn’t a safe activity, and he wouldn’t allow me to buy one. So I began campaigning to change his mind. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I may have presented him some facts about bicycle safety I’d found somewhere. In any case, he eventually saw the logic of my argument. So, at age 12, with his permission, I went out and purchased a bike. The next week, my brother Alan, who was 9, also used his money to buy a bike. That didn’t strike me as right, however; I’d had to wait until I was 12, so I thought Alan should have to wait until he was that age. But when I complained to Dad about it, he calmly explained that I had convinced him that bikes were okay for kids to ride, so there was no reason to make Alan wait three more years before he could get one. It was hard to argue with that kind of logic.
Throughout that day of riding, as we went through several cycles of ascending and descending on the parkway amid the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge, more memories of my father streamed to my mind. Dad loved scenery like this. He and Mom sometimes took us on picnics in state parks (once even in the dead of winter with a foot of snow on the ground). His attitude toward and appreciation for the out of doors helped to awaken my own love of outdoor adventure.
In his working life, my father had been a minister. When I was getting ready to go to school for the ministry myself, a woman in our church, where Dad was the pastor, took me aside to tell me something about him. She explained that shortly after my father was appointed there, she’d had a serious issue she needed counsel about, and she felt my father could be helpful, but she didn’t know him well and wanted the matter kept completely confidential. So she decided to tell my father about something less important and ask him to keep that to himself. She then waited a week and asked my mother about that second matter. She found that Mom knew nothing at all about it. At that point, this woman had satisfied herself that Dad would keep her private matters private, and she proceeded to get his counsel on the thing she really wanted advice about. Her story about my Dad served as a model for me all the years of my ministry, regarding how to treat the confidences people shared with me as their pastor.
As I continued to pedal, some themes of my father’s life began to take shape in my mind. He was a man of integrity and true humility, sometimes to the point of not giving himself enough credit. He was reliable and could be counted on to follow through on what he agreed to do. He was calm, not given to sudden anger or outbursts, and always reasonable, though he stubbornly stuck to his decisions when he was convinced about them. He was honest, as unattached to possessions as anybody I’ve ever known, and true to his faith. Unknowingly, he helped me many times by his willingness to acknowledge his own uncertainty; and far from telling me what I ought to believe, he helped me to think for myself.
He had his failings, of course. He was deeply introverted, to the point that some people thought of him as a loner, and he was seldom the one to make the first move in connecting with others. What’s more, he disliked making decisions quickly. All these things made the ministry a particularly difficult field of endeavor. I know that he sometimes felt he was misplaced in that career. Yet he did his work faithfully, and the parishioners in his churches that I’ve met all told me how much they liked him.
Still pedaling, it eventually came to me that I had effectively composed in my head what I wanted to say about him when we held the memorial service. So at that end of that day’s leg, at our next camping site, I made some notes from my thoughts. They subsequently became the heart of my comments at Dad’s service. Both of my brothers spoke there as well, arriving at their tributes by their own paths.
My path was a bicycle ride, which helped me not only to think, but also to cry and to wheel myself to a kind of peace as I contemplated my loss.
When I was a young man, trying to declare my independence and make my own mark in the world, I would occasionally do something that would cause someone who knew both Dad and me to say, “You’re becoming just like your father.” In those days, that comment would annoy me. But as I’ve come to know my Dad not only as kid in his household but also as an adult in the grown-up world, my view has changed. Now, if someone says to me, “You’re becoming just like your father,” I hear it as a compliment. The fact is, I know that some of who I am today is because of who he was. I owe him a lot.
I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to be one of the sons of Norman Purdum.